Viewing an episode of your favorite show may become a matter of speed, fast or slow. Trying to watch that season finale of Game of Thrones or that premiere of Orange is the New Black could become an experience based on how much you’re willing to pay.
The way we watch our shows online — or anything online, for that matter — could face some significant changes under the Federal Communications Commission’s new proposal. In May, the FCC voted 3-2 to proceed with Chairman Tom Wheeler’s proposed “Open Internet,” which would essentially allow for Internet Service Providers to prioritize certain sites like Netflix and YouTube, and charge users premium fees for accessing them at a faster pace.
The move could mean powerful telecom companies such as AT&T, Verizon and Comcast creating a two-tiered Internet, with potential fast and slow lanes to separate users. Although Wheeler has stated on the FCC website that the concept of fast lanes to describe his proposal “misses the point,” some critics say a slower speed for some users would be inevitable if a premium option were to take effect.
Some believe the proposal violates the principle of “net neutrality,” a term that essentially describes an open Internet where information is free from interference, censorship, and discrimination.
Stephanie Chen, energy and telecommunications policy director at Greenlining Institute in Berkeley, said the new rules raise a “pernicious concern,” noting that small companies could have difficulty competing with larger corporations in the game. It’s unlikely that big ISPs would prioritize small companies, thus giving users less incentive to visit smaller sites with slower speeds.
“What you have is a lot of companies, startups, saying ‘Hey, Netflix would’ve never become Netflix if it wasn’t for an open Internet,’” Chen said.
The FCC’s proposed changes have raised implications of a digital divide for some net neutrality advocates. According to Tracy Rosenberg, Executive Director of Media Alliance in Oakland, the new rules could disproportionately impact lower-income and less-English-speaking communities that might not be able to pay for faster, premium service.
“Paid-for content is content that someone is paying to speed up so that we essentially have a commercialization of the Internet,” Rosenberg said. “If you prioritize content by money you’re shutting off, to the side, the non-commercial.”
Non-commercial information found online plays an important role for the professional and personal lives of some groups. For the Center of Media Justice based in Oakland, a big audience of theirs are media makers and cultural organizers that depend on the Web to share their work. According to CMJ national organizer Steven Renderos, many independent artists use the Internet as a distribution network that allows them to share their art online, without it costing anything.
He believes the new proposal is “designed to block out certain voices” — the voices of marginalized communities, i.e. people of color, the queer and transgendered community, and artists.
“The Internet has really been a space where the voice of opposition can really exist, can really thrive,” Renderos said, an environment that “is vital to a 21st century democracy.”
To engage community members in the issue, CMJ is holding an #InternetHaiku campaign, where they are inviting participants to structure comments to the FCC in Haiku form and post them on Twitter — a way to “inject a little bit of culture in the political process,” according to Renderos. On July 8th, CMJ will compile all of the Internet Haikus that people have posted and file them with the FCC on July 15, when the proposal’s public comment period ends.
Rosenberg similarly advised the public to place “grassroots pressure” on the FCC, through methods such as phone calls, emails, and comments on their site.
“It’s about creating a big fuss,” said Rosenberg. “We’re going to have to start thinking like Internet guerillas to make the Internet work for us no matter what the government is failing to regulate.”